The Boise State football team’s success in 2016 could hinge on the coaches’ ability to build depth at tailback, wide receiver and defensive back through bowl practices, spring practice, fall camp and the final pieces of this recruiting class.
The Broncos have been thin in those three skill positions over the past two seasons — and the holes have been most obvious this year.
Sophomore tailback Jeremy McNichols leads the team with 1,608 yards from scrimmage and is tied for the national lead with 23 touchdowns. Great numbers. But only one other tailback has contributed more than 200 yards from scrimmage — senior Kelsey Young (522), who has done much of his damage when games were decided and won’t be back next year anyway.
Junior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck was named team MVP with 82 catches for 1,334 yards and eight touchdowns. He has broken the school single-season record for yards and likely will break the record for catches. But the Broncos only have two other wide receivers with more than 10 catches (senior Shane Williams-Rhodes, 54, and junior Chaz Anderson, 38) and one other wide receiver who has caught a touchdown pass (Anderson, two). The Broncos average 48.4 pass attempts per wide receiver touchdown.
And for the second straight year, the Broncos have run so short on defensive backs that they’ve had to move linebacker Tanner Vallejo to nickel. In five games without either senior cornerback Donte Deayon or senior safety Darian Thompson, they’ve allowed 233, 487, 413, 607 and 474 yards — an average of 443 per game. Before that stretch, the Broncos were allowing 270 yards per game.
The Broncos addressed their needs at wide receiver (three) and defensive back (eight) in the 2015 recruiting class but didn’t land a high school running back. The 2016 class currently includes at least three defensive backs, two running backs and two wide receivers.
Coach Bryan Harsin said the 2015 class should help the Broncos at the skill positions next year. Wide receiver Akilian Butler and cornerback Tyler Horton from that class have played as true freshmen this season.
“We’ve got to grow the depth and we’ve got to grow the talent in those areas, too,” Harsin said Monday. “... We need more than just one or two guys that can play. We need guys who are here now and have played in some roles to step up and be better players, even in the bowl game.”
FINLEY, DSG CAN REDSHIRT
Quarterback Ryan Finley and safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner, who have been sidelined since September with broken ankles, won’t play in the Poinsettia Bowl against Northern Illinois on Dec. 23, Harsin said.
That means both will be eligible to receive medical hardship redshirts for this season.
Finley started the first three games and was injured in the first half of the Idaho State game. He has thrown the ball but isn’t 100 percent, Harsin said.
“Ryan is not ready to play,” Harsin said. “He won’t be come bowl time.”
Finley was sidelined with a shoulder injury during his entire true freshman season, when he redshirted. He was the backup quarterback in 2014. Because he has missed two seasons with injuries, he is eligible for a sixth year. He should be a redshirt sophomore again in 2016 and slide into the senior class of 2018.
That would give the Broncos three quarterbacks in the class of 2018 — Finley, who was originally in the class of 2017, Alex Ogle and current starter Brett Rypien, who was originally slated for the class of 2019.
Sumner-Gardner’s case is a little different than Finley’s. The safety started the first four games before his injury. He played in four of 12 regular-season games — or 33 percent. That’s above the NCAA limit of 30 percent to be eligible for a medical hardship year.
But the way the NCAA decides eligibility is a little funky: 30 percent of 12 games is 3.6. The NCAA rounds that to four. So football players can compete in four games and still be eligible for the redshirt year.
If players are medically cleared to return before the regular season ends — even if they don’t play in games — they are ineligible.
Sumner-Gardner played as a true freshman in 2014, so this will be considered his redshirt year and he’ll be a redshirt sophomore in 2016.
Another quirk in the rule: Because the regular season has ended, Finley and Sumner-Gardner can practice if they’re able without affecting their hardship eligibility. They just can’t play in the bowl game.
At one time, Harsin suggested Sumner-Gardner could return by Halloween.
“That was wishful thinking more than anything,” he said. “He’s not going to be fully healthy. When you’re talking about recovery times and surgeries, we don’t want to have a guy come back and have another break or aggravate it. We’re going to continue with his rehab and get him fully healthy for the spring.”
Harsin expects Thompson (concussion) and Williams-Rhodes (ankle) to play in the Poinsettia Bowl. They missed the last two regular-season games.
Left tackle Rees Odhiambo (ankle) won’t play.
HOUT, MILLER TO MONTANA STATE
Boise State graduate assistants Byron Hout and Matt Miller — who are also former Broncos players — will join the Montana State coaching staff, Harsin said Monday.
Montana State hired Jeff Choate last week as head coach. Choate was the Broncos’ special teams coordinator from 2006 to 2011. He spent the past two years on staff at Washington under former Boise State coach Chris Petersen.
Hout’s first year as a graduate assistant was in 2012 at Washington State with Choate. Hout, who played defensive end and linebacker for the Broncos, is from Coeur d’Alene.
Miller played wide receiver for the Broncos from 2010 to 2014. He returned this fall as an assistant. He was one of Montana’s greatest high school football players and is from Helena.
It’s unclear what their positions will be. The hires haven’t been announced by Montana State.
“They have opportunities to move on and start their careers in this profession,” Harsin said. “I couldn’t be more excited for them and coach Choate and what they’re going to do at Montana State. They’re going to be with us as long as they can be until it’s time for them to go start their real jobs.”
AKRON CHASES SCHOOL HISTORY
Akron will be one of the most excited participants in the 19-year history of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Zips (7-5) will play in a bowl for the second time since moving up to the FBS in 1987 and the first time in 10 years.
If they can beat Utah State on Dec. 22 at Albertsons Stadium, the Zips will set a school record for wins in a season at the FBS level.
“This has been my fifth head coaching job in college and as rewarding as anything I’ve been a part of,” Akron coach Terry Bowden said.
Chadd Cripe is in his 14th season covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He also votes in The AP Top 25. He can be reached at ccripe@ idahostatesman.com
POINSETTIA BOWL GLANCE
▪ Who: Boise State (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5, 6-2 Mid-American)
▪ When: 2:30 p.m. MT Wednesday, Dec. 23
▪ Where: Qualcomm Stadium (71,500, grass), San Diego
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Tickets: $39, $61 or $78 at BroncoSports.com/bowlcentral. Tickets about $10 more through SanDiegoBowlGames.com.
▪ Notable events: Stadium Spectacular — a fireworks show that uses technology new to North America — will be staged on the field and above the east scoreboard after the game. The Gaslamp March featuring the schools’ bands playing holiday music is at 6 p.m. Dec. 21. The team luncheon at the USS Midway Museum is at 11:15 a.m. Dec. 22 ($50).
FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO BOWL GLANCE
▪ Who: Utah State (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West) vs. Akron (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American)
▪ When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Tickets: $20-$90, at ticketmaster.com; $24 for FitOne Family Field Day (pre-game NFL combine-type event at 10:30 a.m., lunch and game ticket)
▪ Notable events: Team arrivals and bowling, Dec. 18; Humanitarian Awards dinner, Dec. 19; Winter sports or go-kart racing day, Dec. 20; FCA breakfast, Mash Bash at The Village, Dec. 21